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6/20/2024 12:18:29 PM
Sherlocked: The controversial practice of Apple copying apps
Sherlocking,Apple Sherlocking,App Developer Sherlocking
App Developer Magazine
Sherlocked: The controversial practice of Apple copying apps

Business of Apps

Sherlocked: The controversial practice of Apple copying apps

Thursday, June 20, 2024

Richard Harris Richard Harris

The controversial practice of "Sherlocking", where Apple integrates features from popular third-party apps into its own OS, impacting developers. Learn about notable cases, developer challenges, and the ethical debate surrounding this practice.

In recent years, "Sherlocked" has become a buzzword associated with Apple. This term describes Apple's practice of integrating features from popular third-party apps into its own operating systems, often rendering those apps obsolete. The term originated from Apple's Sherlock search tool, which incorporated features from the third-party tool Watson. At our own software company, Moonbeam, we've experienced this firsthand with our app ChirpGPS and several photo-filter apps we've published over the years, highlighting the challenges developers face when competing with Apple's native features.

The origin of "Sherlocking"

The term "Sherlocked" traces back to the early 2000s when Apple introduced Sherlock, a search utility for macOS. Initially, Sherlock was a simple file search tool. However, Karelia Software developed Watson, an enhanced search utility that provided web services integration, such as weather, stock quotes, and phone number lookup.

In 2002, Apple released Sherlock 3, which included many of the same features that Watson offered. As a result, Watson's utility and market share were significantly diminished, leading to the term "Sherlocked" to describe this type of behavior.

Recent examples of Sherlocking

Recent examples of "Sherlocking"


TapeACall is a popular app that allows users to record phone calls. With the introduction of iOS 14, Apple added a built-in call recording feature, which many users saw as a direct copy of TapeACall's functionality. This move raised questions about Apple's ethics and its impact on third-party developers who rely on the App Store for their livelihood.


The original case that coined the term is still relevant as it sets the precedent. Karelia Software's Watson was effectively rendered unnecessary when Apple added similar functionalities to Sherlock, driving home the pattern of Apple absorbing successful third-party innovations into its own ecosystem.

Screen time apps

Apps like Moment and Screen Time offered users the ability to monitor and limit their screen usage. When Apple introduced its own Screen Time feature in iOS 12, it not only mirrored these apps' functionalities but also restricted their capabilities by enforcing new App Store guidelines, which some developers claimed were unfairly targeting them.

Photo editing apps

Many third-party photo editing apps faced a similar fate when Apple introduced advanced editing features in its Photos app. These features included many tools that were previously exclusive to paid apps.

Navigation apps

The introduction of Apple Maps saw Apple integrating features that were popular in apps like Google Maps and Waze, such as real-time traffic updates and turn-by-turn navigation. While Apple Maps had a rocky start, it has steadily improved and integrated more features from its competitors.

The impact on developers

The impact on developers

The practice of Sherlocking has significant implications for developers. When Apple integrates features directly into iOS or macOS, third-party apps that offered those features can see a drastic decline in downloads and revenue. This not only affects the developers' income but also their motivation to innovate and develop new features, knowing that Apple might incorporate their ideas into the OS itself.

Furthermore, Apple's control over the App Store means that it can enforce guidelines that may restrict third-party apps' functionalities, further disadvantaging them compared to Apple's native solutions.

Apple's defense

Apple argues that integrating these features into the OS provides a better and more seamless experience for users. They claim that by offering these functionalities natively, they can ensure better performance, tighter integration, and enhanced security. For instance, system-level features can operate more efficiently than third-party apps that might require additional permissions or background processing.

Moreover, Apple points out that the App Store continues to provide a platform for millions of developers to distribute their apps to a global audience, and many successful apps have thrived despite the competition from native features.

The ethical debate

The ethical debate

The ethical implications of Sherlocking are complex. On one hand, Apple is a business, and incorporating popular features into its OS is a competitive strategy that benefits its users. On the other hand, this practice can stifle innovation and harm smaller developers who rely on unique features to differentiate their apps.

Critics argue that Apple, with its vast resources and influence, has a responsibility to foster a fair and competitive ecosystem. They suggest that Apple should either avoid copying third-party apps or, if it does integrate similar features, provide adequate support and recognition to the original developers.

The future of app development on Apple platforms

The trend of Sherlocking raises important questions about the future of app development on Apple platforms. Developers must consider the risk that their innovative features might be adopted by Apple in future updates. This uncertainty can influence their business strategies and willingness to invest in new ideas.

For Apple, maintaining a balance between enhancing its OS and supporting a thriving third-party developer community is crucial. The company needs to navigate these waters carefully to ensure that it continues to attract and retain top talent in the app development community.

The practice of Sherlocking highlights the tension between innovation and competition in the tech industry. While Apple’s integration of third-party features into its OS can benefit users with a more seamless experience, it poses significant challenges for independent developers. The ethical debate surrounding this practice will likely continue as Apple and other tech giants evolve their platforms. For now, developers must remain vigilant and adaptive, continually finding new ways to innovate and provide value in an ever-changing landscape.

As users and tech enthusiasts, it’s important to recognize the contributions of third-party developers and support them in their efforts to bring unique and valuable features to our devices. Whether through app purchases, subscriptions, or simply spreading the word, supporting independent developers ensures a diverse and vibrant tech ecosystem.

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